MUSCLE SHOALS — They're as diverse in personality and talents as they can be, but they all have a major attribute in common — they're overcomers.
Connor Reed, Jaylee Beth Smith and Riley Kimbrell are juniors at Muscle Shoals High School and all are hearing impaired.
Andrew Hendrix, a sophomore, also has major hearing loss with 25 percent hearing in one ear and 35 percent in the other.
The group admits they may be considered an anomaly in that there are three of them in the same grade, but they also joke, "if you didn't just know it, you wouldn't know it."
Thanks to modern technology, the students are well connected. Reed and Smith have cochlear implants, and Kimbrell and Hendrix have hearing aids.
All four are connected in each of their classes by a FM electronic device the teacher wears that reduces background noise and improves clarity of the instructor's voice.
There is also a sound field tower in the classrooms that amplifies sound.
Principal Chad Holden said such accommodations are simply a part of the students' success.
"These are really bright kids, and they're all driven to succeed in their areas of interest, so we accommodate them the best we can," he said. "Their drive and hard work are keys in their success. They're all just great people."
For Reed, his first cochlear implant came at age 3. A year later he got the other one.
"I had no hearing at all, so my parents were really happy to finally communicate with me," Reed said. "Generally, people don't have a clue and I'm glad. Hearing people have no idea what it's like. It's pretty weird. Implants take in all the sounds, so I have to sort of piece together what's said in some situations."
Reed has high hopes for the future of technology, and believes even more improvements are coming for cochlear implants and such devices.
He plans to earn a computer sciences degree and use that knowledge as an "imagineer" for the Disney Corporation, which means engineering and designing attractions for the theme parks and movies.
Smith, who got her first cochlear implant in infancy and her second at age 6, said a day at school can be exhaustive. "We're working extra hard just to hear clearly everything that's being said."
Like Reed, Smith said she's grateful for the technology that allows her to hear and speak clearly.
"When people find out, they're like, 'Wow, I didn't have a clue.'"
And that's just how she wants it.
Smith plans to become a nurse practitioner, working in pediatrics.
"I'd love to share with kids what I went through, and encourage them to just keep striving to do big things," she said.
Smith's health sciences program includes adaptive equipment as well, including a hand-held stethoscope that's specially wired.
"The first time I used my special stethoscope last year, I plugged it in and heard a heartbeat for the first time ever," she said. "That was just a really amazing experience for me, one I'll never forget. I love that sound."
Kibrell, who got her hearing aid at age 5, said her world grew exponentially when she got to fifth grade and first used the FM system in class.
"It made such a difference for me," she said. "All of a sudden, I could hear what all the other kids were hearing."
Kimbrell's interest is in welding, and she says she hopes it leads to a good career.
She knows there aren't a lot of female welders, but she's all right with that, too, adding that she's fine with taking a different path.
Hendrix said his hearing loss, diagnosed at age 7, is due to the deterioration of a nerve from his ear to his brain. With only minimal hearing in each ear, for now, it is remaining stable.
The honors student says he hopes to pursue a career in aerospace engineering. He doesn't expect his hearing impairment to alter those plans.
"I could lose what little hearing I have, but there's technology available to help me then, too, so I don't just sit around and worry about it," Hendrix said.
He and the others agreed that merely getting through a school day can be a struggle.
"People don't realize it, but when we get home we're exhausted from working so hard just to be clear on what we heard," he said, adding jokingly that as odd as it sounds, "Our ears make us really tired."
The group knows a thing or two about the strength of friendship as well.
"It's just good knowing I'm not the only one going through this, and on tough days there are others who know exactly how I feel," Reed said.